Yale's Technology Commercialization Program Hopes for Another Success Story with Startup IsoPlexis
By Brita Belli
Yale's Technology Commercialization Program has helped launch some of the University's most successful startups. They include Oasys Water, which secured $26.5 million to develop Yale-patented forward osmosis technology for water desalination and Hadapt, a database analytics company that secured $14 million in venture financing. Known as TCP, the program is run by Yale's Office of Cooperative Research and connects faculty innovators with young entrepreneurs—most often School of Management students. One of the latest TCP ventures matches Rong Fan, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science, who has developed a novel protein-monitoring device, with two Yale students-- Kara Brower (YC '13) and Sean Mackay (SOM '14). The team, known as IsoPlexis, has been busy developing Fan's Yale-patented technology into a marketable device for clinicians and drug and vaccine developers as part of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute's Summer Fellowship.
Mackay was introduced to IsoPlexis during one of YEI's Friday luncheons that was set up to introduce School of Management students to promising new faculty research. He was looking for a healthcare startup, and was immediately impressed with Brower's presentation. "They had a better way of monitoring immune responses than anything out there," says Mackay, who spent six years working in advisory and business development with biotech and medical device companies. "Immune response is very basic to many drugs and a lot of diagnostics. The potential right away seemed very high."
Measuring a Patient's Proteins
Proteins—including cytokines and chemokines—allow cells to communicate. They can indicate, for instance, the health status of an HIV-positive patient's immune system, or the aggressiveness of tumors and their likelihood of recurrence in a cancer patient.
The problem, until now, has been finding an easy-to-use, cost-effective way to measure these proteins at the single-cell level and in clinical settings. This represents a major gap that prevents the translation of basic scientific discoveries in systems biology to transform future medicine. Last year, Fan developed a breakthrough technology. He designed a simple assay kit that uses a microchip to detect more than 40 protein markers secreted from more than a thousand single cells simultaneously.
"If you can monitor the immune system, that’s the best generic way to follow a patient’s response [to treatment]," Fan says, adding that because the immune system circulates around the entire body "it brings information back from almost every organ." Using this device, clinicians will be able to, for the first time, directly correlate proteins secreted from single cells with the cells’ physical behavior, representing a potentially transformative tool for monitoring cell function and immunity in patients. The device represents a major step forward in personalized medicine.
From Patent to Startup
When Fan wanted to determine the potential for his protein device, he turned to Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research (OCR). "We partner with faculty," says OCR Licensing Associate Richard Andersson. "We listen to them about their work and jointly try to figure out how their inventions might benefit society and become commercially significant." There are many steps to the commercialization process: determining patentability and commercial feasibility, protecting the intellectual property and forming relationships with commercial partners.
With a strong patent application in place, Andersson and Fan discussed whether the technology had startup potential. Andersson says the tool was impressive in the potential scope of its applications. "I was struck by how radically the tool enhances quantity and quality of information available to people that study single cell response," he says. "They have identified real potential with their lead application in immune response monitoring. The higher quality information that they will make available to industry will lead to more successful, cost-effective drug trials."
Building a Business
Brower, who was studying single-cell analytics when Fan approached her about forming a startup, is the Chief Technical Officer of IsoPlexis. Mackay is the CEO and Fan is the Chief Scientific Advisor. While Fan has returned to his research he continues to regularly advise the team. Brower and Mackay, meanwhile, have devoted themselves full-time into making IsoPlexis a success—including working 50-70 hours a week on the startup during the school year. This summer, as part of YEI’s Summer Fellowship program, the team is meeting with 10 mentors, pitching the company to investors and working aggressively to improve the technology and better understand the market.
"YEI has been a good conduit for mentors and investors," says Mackay. "We’re focused on building a cohesive, powerful application—and we’re careful about going too quickly."
The Next Success Story?
Never far from the team’s mind are past Yale startup success stories like Oasys, Hadapt and Ancera, a platform for the separation and detection of minute concentrations of pathogens in bodily fluids, which has already secured about $1 million in financing.
The IsoPlexis team plans to reach out to academic researchers first with their technology for use in immune response monitoring. Oncology applications are a few years off. "Rong has created a powerful tool," says Mackay. "The next step is to find a viable application on a large-scale level that attracts great employees, press and funding."